Ellen and I were driving up the dirt road to a friend’s place on Saturday. Rounding a curve, I spotted a man off to the right under the piñon pines lying on his side. He had his back to us, so I couldn’t see what, if anything, he was doing. He might have been asleep; he did look a bit like a hobo stretched out for a nap. But as we drove on I figured, no, he’s probably just found a comfortable way to do what we’re going to do: gather piñon nuts.
I tried various close-to-the-ground positions under our friend’s trees. My back didn’t like kneeling after a while. My hip didn’t like sitting for very long. The best by far, once I’d identified a fruitful square yard, was to lie out as the “hobo” had, legs stretched out straight, hip nestled in the pine needles, up on one elbow picking slow handfuls of berry-brown seeds.
Out the living room window the last few mornings, chipmunks have been working the sagebrush. The little guys climb a branch and nibble off a fruiting panicle then sprint back to the ground – so fast sometimes it’s hard to follow the movement – where they sit upright and devour the seed stalk between their paws as if it were a giant corn dog. Flat rocks near the sage are covered in half-eaten stems.
Everybody’s gathering, storing up for harder times.
Another friend needed help getting a load of firewood from a local sawmill. We drove my pickup, Old Bailey, out there and filled the back with foot-long scraps. We worked languorously – stooping, throwing, talking about avalanches and our various infirmities. How it’s OK in our autumn years to ski a little less, to wait, and harvest the perfect-powder days.
It did occur to me as we talked and worked – though I didn’t say as much – that this easy scavenging was perhaps an indication of diminished times. Not the sorry economic times we find ourselves in so much as the contrast with a vigorous, not-so-long-ago youth, when I would be out at this time of year in the high aspen and spruce forests, selecting the best dead snags and felling them with the chainsaw, bucking them up, and hauling them out of the woods.
It was fantastically hard work, especially if the trees were some distance from Old Bailey. But it was fantastic work, too. We needed six cords to get through a winter, so there were days and days to practice what became a kind of sweating Zen exercise in efficient movement, a perfect safety record, and the fine art of flinging BTUs. Plus it was just so great to be out there in the Indian-summer sun, a billion leaves rustling, the smell of winter coming, black dirt giving under my boot heels – while people in blaze orange drove past hunting different game.
Ellen spotted the first elk carcass on Saturday. It was opening day of the first combined (deer and elk) rifle season. A bull with a sizable rack had been laid out on a flatbed trailer. There was no mistaking the position he lay in. It was not natural. He was not sleeping. His head twisted awkwardly to the sky as the great antlers hung up on the boards.
The aspen leaves are almost all gone now, blown to Kansas by that Category 3 storm we had last week. But down lower here on the Uncompahgre River, the cottonwoods still blaze. And the tough desert plants show their own colors in death: yellow grasses, light pink saltbrush, the translucent white disks, like rice paper fans for chipmunks, of a ground cover I haven’t yet identified.
Turned out there were subtle color differences in the piñon seeds we hunted through. Some were brown, some were black; the grayish ones had obviously been on the ground too long. We cracked them with our teeth and sampled the meat. It was not clear what color shell produced the best nut.
Lying there in the windless warmth with the smell of pitch on our hands and the dappled light playing across the ground, it was almost possible to forget another rite of autumn – especially intense this fall – with all of its outsized meaning and emotion.
Unlike the elk and the chipmunks – who just know – we stitch together fragments of remembered past and imagined future, experiment with what we want to believe, worry that practical instinct has been bred right out of us. And then we vote.